Reparations and the Legacy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey

Don Rojas is the Director of Communications for the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW21) and the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), a member of its board of directors and former Press Secretary to the late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada. 

The following article has been republished. It is an abridged version of a speech given by Don Rojas at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, Michigan on the occasion of the 130th Anniversary of the birth of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The text originally appeared in the Institute of the Black World 21st Century on August 21, 2017. 

Photo of Don Rojas

Though he seldom receives credit for it, the Hon. Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero, the towering Black giant we are remembering today on the anniversary of his birth, was the man who had organized the largest mass movement of Black people in the world.  At its zenith, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had over 3 million dues-paying members, with chapters all across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Central America. 

As a journalist myself, former editor of the New York Amsterdam News and former Director of Communications at the NAACP, I am amazed that the UNIA’s newspaper, The Negro World which Garvey launched in 1918, achieved a weekly circulation of over a half million copies at its peak, a number higher that the NAACP’s Crisis, the Messenger, the Chicago Defender and other important black newspapers of the time combined. No existing African-American weekly newspaper can boast a circulation even close to that of the Negro World 100 years ago. 

One hundred years later, no other black leader or organization in the African diaspora has been able to match Marcus Garvey’s extraordinary feats of mass organization and mass mobilization. During a trip to Jamaica, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King visited Garvey’s shrine on 20 June 1965 and laid a wreath. In a speech at the University of the West Indies he told the audience that Garvey “was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.”

This is the perfect time to remind everyone of Garvey’s accomplishments, primarily because there is a significant opportunity once again for Black people in America, the Caribbean and in Africa to unite around issues concerning reparations, economic development and self-sufficiency. Garvey’s legacy endures long after his death in 1940 and it lives today in the reparations movement. 

The strategic international emergence in recent years of a movement for reparatory justice in the Caribbean, the USA, Latin America, Europe and Africa is a manifestation of Garvey’s Pan-Africanist legacy, a living legacy that had impacted the anti-colonial and independence movements in Africa and the Caribbean and continues to influence the anti-racist resistance struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and in Afro-descendant communities across the globe. 

Close to 100 years ago, Marcus Garvey argued the case for reparations for the crimes of slavery and colonialism when he said back in 1919, “They said we were heathens, we were pagans, we were savages and did not know how to take care of ourselves; that we did not have any religion; we did not have any culture; we did not have any civilisation for all those centuries, and that is why they had to be our guardians. But, thank God, we have them all now, and as such we are asking that you hand back to us ‘our own civilisation’. Hand back to us that which you have robbed and exploited us of in the name of God and Christianity for the last 500 years.” 

Today, the still-active chapter of the UNIA in Garvey’s homeland of Jamaica is a staunch advocate for reparations and an active member of the national Jamaica Reparations committee. 

The reparations movement ebbed and flowed in the 1990s and in the early 2000ths and then it found a new momentum in the second decade of the 21st Century.  A brief chronological review of this decade could begin in July, 2013 with the historic launch of the CARICOM Reparations Commission at a summit of Caribbean heads of government in Trinidad & Tobago. 

This marked the first time that a group of independent, sovereign states had agreed to make a united demand to the governments of former slave holding nations for reparations for the historic crimes of native genocide and African enslavement in the Caribbean. 

This breakthrough development inspired and excited reparations activists and advocates around the world. It galvanized the establishment of the National African American Reparations Commission in March 2015 followed a month later in April, 2015 by the national/international reparations conference organized by the Institute of the Black World in New York. This major conference attracted hundreds of reparations advocates from across the USA and Canada and well as from 18 countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and Africa. 

In April 2014, journalist and author TaNehesi Coates published his landmark article “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic magazine, which broke the magazine’s record for readership of any edition in the 120-year history of the Atlantic. 

In May 2016, the Movement for Black Lives released its platform with reparations listed among its top 5 demands— “reparations for the wealth extracted from our communities through environmental racism, slavery, food apartheid, housing discrimination and racialized capitalism in the form of corporate and government reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land”. 

In January 2016, a United Nations Group of Experts led by Mirielle Fanon Mendes-France, daughter of the great Martiniquan revolutionary doctor and freedom-fighter Franz Fanon, released a report following a number of fact-finding visits to urban centers across the USA.  The report concluded, “The legacy of slavery, post-Reconstruction ‘Jim Crow’ laws and racial subordination in the United States remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to recognition and reparations for people of African descent in America.” 

One month later, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) passed a unanimous resolution at a summit of Presidents and Prime Ministers supporting CARICOM’s 10-Point Action Plan for reparatory justice. 

The call for reparations is today resonating far beyond the United States and the Caribbean. Last year, the Prime Minister of India speaking in that country’s Parliament said that his government was considering a number of reparations demands to the British Government for crimes committed against the Indian people during the long years of British colonial rule in that South Asian country. 

In Africa, civil society organizations in Tanzania and Namibia, with support from their governments, are now demanding that Germany pay reparations for acts of genocide committed against the peoples of those countries during the period of German colonization in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  And, we hope that very soon the African Union (the AU) will see fit to join the CARICOM and CELAC nations in support of the call for reparations for people of African descent in the diaspora as well as on the continent of Africa. 

In March 2017, a group of Afro-Colombian civil rights activists convened a reparations conference in Cali, Colombia, South America to examine the need for reparations for crimes committed against black Colombians during that country’s recent civil war and a reparations movement is picking up steam in far-away Australia that addresses compensation and restitution for past crimes against the Aboriginal peoples of that country. 

As you can see from this brief chronology, there is, indeed, a global reparations movement in the making. 

At its conference on racism, bigotry, xenophobia and racial intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001, the United Nations declared slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade to be crimes against humanity, crimes that have never been punished. Monstrous, historic crimes such as slavery have no statute of limitations… and so a legal case can be brought against the former slave-holding countries, which is what the CARICOM nations intend to do. 

It was the enormous profits produced by the free, super-exploited labor of enslaved Africans toiling in the plantations of the American South and in the islands of the Caribbean in the 17th,18th and 19th centuries that financed the industrial revolutions in Europe and America which later gave rise to the growth of capitalism and the expansion of imperialism in the 20th and 21st Centuries. The historical evidence is abundant and clear—slavery gave rise to capitalism, both in Europe and in the United States. 

In carrying out the systematic economic rape of enslaved black bodies, unspeakable terror and plunder was visited on millions of black people in the Western Hemisphere over a period of 300 years. 

And just as the courageous young black men and women in the Movement for Black Lives are today resisting and fighting back against police brutality and the daily ravages of systemic and institutional racism, our enslaved ancestors fought back and resisted the terror of chattel slavery time and time again. 

Countless revolts rose up in the US South as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America during the slavery period, the most successful of which was the victory of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, defeating the mighty imperial armies of France, Spain and England and which led to the establishment of the first independent and sovereign black Republic in the world. 

Just like in Garvey’s era, every consequential movement needs a program and a working agenda. The Caribbean wing of this movement has a 10-point Action Plan. For the CARICOM nations, the question of reparations is not about individual hand outs of checks to the descendants of African slaves but more so a question of regional integration and national development. Reparations is widely viewed in the Caribbean as the last stage of de-colonization and the next stage of development and sovereignty. 

Today, the CARICOM Commission asserts that victims and descendants of these crimes against humanity have a legal right to reparatory justice, and that those who committed these crimes, and who have been enriched by the proceeds of these crimes, have a reparatory case to answer. 

The Commission argues that European governments were the legal bodies that instituted the framework for developing and sustaining these crimes. These governments, furthermore, served as the primary agencies through which slave-based enrichment took place, and as national custodians of criminally accumulated wealth. The Commission views the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today. Furthermore, it recognizes that the persistent harm and suffering experienced today by these victims constitute the primary causes of under-development in the Caribbean. 

In its 10-Point Action Plan, the CARICOM Reparations Commission calls for a full, formal apology from the governments of Britain, France, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Norway and Sweden for the historical crimes committed during the time of slavery. 

The Commission argues that the healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires, as a precondition, the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe. Some governments in refusing to offer an apology have issued in place “Statements of Regrets.” 

Such statements do not acknowledge that crimes have been committed and represent a refusal to take responsibility for such crimes. Statements of regrets represent, furthermore, a reprehensible response to the call for apology in that they suggest that victims and their descendants are not worthy of an apology. Only an explicit formal apology will suffice. 

You can read about the other elements of CARICOM’s 10-Point Action Agenda here

Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair. Such an engagement will call into being, for example, the need for greater Caribbean integration designed to enable the coming together of the fragmented community. 

Caribbean governments that emerged from slavery and colonialism have inherited the massive crisis of community poverty and institutional unpreparedness for development. These governments still daily engage in the business of cleaning up the colonial mess in order to prepare for development. 

The pressure of development has driven governments to carry the burden of public employment and social policies designed to confront colonial legacies. This process has resulted in states accumulating unsustainable levels of public debt that now constitute their fiscal entrapment. 

Sisters and Brothers, in conclusion, as we seek a path forward for the global reparations movement we recognize that while there is no blueprint or official roadmap, efforts are underway to strengthen the links between the various elements of this emerging global movement and to begin a process of regular and active solidarity and dialogue aimed at achieving cohesion and coordination among the various geographical centers of the movement. 

As we march forward into the future with determination and resolve to advance the struggle for reparatory justice for black people around the world, we should take some time to cast our attention back to the 1920s and 30s, back to the era when the man we honor today, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, had built the largest mass movement of black people in the modern epoch, a movement that spanned black communities in North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. 

We need to critically examine Garvey’s principles and practices in organizing and mobilizing and be inspired and reassured that a similar global mass movement of African-descended peoples is possible in the 21st Century and, to be sure, this new movement will build upon the foundations and traditions of Garvey’s movement and will be guided by his Pan-Africanist ideas. Collectively, reparations activists and advocates across the world are now taking those first crucial steps and I would like to invite you all here tonight, residents of this city with a long and rich history of activism, to join the ranks of the new reparations movement that’s now on the march. 

As we would often say at the end of a speech during the time of the Grenada Revolution under the leadership of Comrade Maurice Bishop, we would say: